Polishing the mirror

I’m on my way back from Mysore, in the lovely state of Karnataka in India. I spent two weeks practising Ashtanga Yoga with Saraswathi Jois and taking philosophy classes with Arvind Pare.

With Arvind we unpacked and studied a number of mantras and prayers, explored chapter 12 of the  Bhagavad Gita and studied chapter one of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

I had two goals for this trip, deepen my studies of Yoga philosophy and “get back” my Ashtanga practice. Ashtanga is traditionally meant to be practiced six days a week, ideally first thing in the morning, Most Ashtanga practitioners will tell you that building a home practice is not easy. Ashtanga is intense and the practice takes a minimum of an hour. Since I started teaching more and more classes I have let that morning practice slip. I would do some Yoga, and always do meditation, but hardly ever would I do my full Ashtanga practice. And you know what? I missed it dearly.

Dirty mirror

Ashtanga is a funny beast, it is hard, no doubt, but it makes me feel physically good, more than any other practice I have done. BUT, and it’s a big but, only if I do it regularly. I often say that Ashtanga only works if you practice a MINIMUM of three times a week, but the recommended 6 is really ideal.

So I thought that practising in Saraswathi’s shala every morning for two weeks would get me back on track. The first 2-3 days were pretty hard, my body wasn’t used to it anymore, but it soon got better and by the end of my stay the practice felt natural and good again. So here’s to hoping I’ll manage to keep it up at home!

During my stay I also managed a couple of “firsts”, binding in the hyperawkward  Marychiasana D (with much assistance, I hasten to add) and doing Urdhva Dhanurasana three consecutive times towards the end of the practice, and actually holding it for the prescribed 5 breaths each time.

So, that’s nice. But does it matter? Yes and no. Asana practice (the physical exercises) is just one of the eight components of Yoga. It is incredibly beneficial, and I am a huge advocate of the benefits it can bring. But it can become a self-serving affair, driven by the ego and by a (sometimes) unhealthy attachment to outcomes.

In an ideal world, we are meant to practice without any expectations, the practice itself being a reward in its own right. Realistically this needs to be tempered a bit for most of us. A  dopamine hit every so often, when we achieve something, is a fantastic motivator and a great help in consistently putting the effort in.

But it’s oh so easy to get carried away. To end up practising to achieve, to forget that the practice is a tool, one of the many, that Yoga gives us.

I was having this very discussion with Arvind. The stated purpose of Yoga is (extremely) summarised in the second sutra “Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah”, “Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind”. What is meant by that, again in simplistic terms,  is that by removing all the crappy mental baggage of preferences, aversions, fears, desires etc, we might be able to see our real Self. Some make the analogy of Yoga practice being equivalent to polishing a mirror covered in gunge and dust so that we can take a look at ourselves.

And to put effort in that task is great, and generally productive. But to get dragged away by our ego, to want to have the shiniest mirror ever, to let that task be all consuming, to polish the mirror for the sake of polishing the mirror, well, maybe not so great.

So, as always, the trick is to strike the right balance. There is a lovely parable in the Buddhist tradition:

One of the Buddha’s disciples, Sona, took to the spiritual life with such zeal that he decided everything else must be thrown overboard. Despite wild animals and poisonous snakes, he went off into the forest alone to practice meditation- and to undo the softness of his pampered past, he insisted on going barefoot.

After some time of this, the Buddha decided to go after him. The path was not hard to find, for it was stained with blood from Sona’s feet. In addition to his begging bowl, the Blessed One brought something unusual: a vina, whose strings he had loosened until they were limp as spaghetti.

He found Sona meditating under a banyan tree. The boy limped over to greet him, but the Buddha did not seem to notice. All he said was, “Sona, can you show me how to make music with this?”

Sona took the instrument respectfully and fingered a few notes. Then he began to laugh. “Blessed one,” he said, “you can’t produce music when the strings are so loose!”

“Oh, I see. Let me try again.” And he proceeded to wind the strings so tightly that Sona winced. When the Buddha tested them, all that came out was high-pitched squeaks.

“Blessed One, that won’t work either. You’ll break the strings. Here, let me tune it for you.” He took the instrument, loosened the strings gently, and played a little of a haunting song.

Then he stopped, for the music brought memories he was afraid to awaken. “It has to be tuned just right to make music,” he said abruptly, handing the vina back to the Buddha. “Neither too tight nor too loose. Just right.”

“Sona,” the Buddha replied, “it is the same for those who seek nirvana. Don’t let yourself be slack, but don’t stretch yourself to breaking either. The middle course, lying between too much and too little, is the way of the Eightfold path.”


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